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Back inside, Moore is greeted with a standing ovation from an audience hes kept waiting for close to an hour. Radiant and visibly pumped, he thanks the audience for having me during Marriage Protection Week, salutes the college as the first to adopt a no-sweatshop policy, dons a proffered Occidental baseball cap and then points out that it was made in Taiwan. Though much of his speech is rehashed from Dude and his Web site, Moore is very quick on his feet, and hes a natural extemporizer. Not that this crowd needs much working up. One lonely, earnest Young Republican in jacket and tie asks why Moore is always dumping on the right. Youve acknowledged that the Republicans control everything, he quavers plaintively. Who are the Angry White Males? The student is rewarded with loud boos from the crowd (someone shouts, They have all the money because they stole it from us!) and a few canned words from the maestro praising the Republicans for being organized and having the courage of their convictions. Almost everything that comes out of Moores mouth is greeted with raucous cheers and foot-stamping. Limbaugh is in rehab! Drug offenders should be let out of prison right now! Then, warming to one of his central themes, that Americans are being kept in a state of enforced ignorance, he tells them that according to a recent study, 85 percent of American students couldnt find Iraq on a map, while a staggering 11 percent couldnt find the United States. You should not be allowed into a country if you cant find it on a map, he roars. Then he asks for a Canadian C-student and an American A-student to come onstage in seconds he has two eager volunteers and gives them a quiz predesigned to show how even the most average Canadian intellect knows more about America than the brainiest American knows about Canada or the rest of the world. The rapturous applause eggs Moore on to a passable Schwarzenegger imitation. Then he passes out post cards urging the students to mail them to Bush asking about the ties between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties and leaves them laughing.
Moore rarely uses the language of class struggle, and he wont own to being a socialist he looks alarmed at the very mention of the word. Most Americans would do the same, and Moore knows that. Call him a populist, though, and he all but purrs.
I am in the mainstream of public opinion, he says.
American populism has a long history, and in this country the term has almost infinite elasticity and a shape-shifting capacity to move with the times and the political temper. Right now, Moore is playing on a very crowded field. In an election year, everybody and his uncle is eager to declare himself a man of the people including Bush, one of the most irritating and disingenuous practitioners alive of folksy language. Moore likes to portray himself as an old-school man of the people he tells me proudly that his favorite movie of 2003 was Seabiscuit, the (highly doctored) history of a horse who came up from nothing, and brought with him the adoration of millions of unemployed workers in the Depression. But its not that simple. Moore is naturally inclined to social movements and to using them to take over political parties. He is the very embodiment of American populism, and of its limits in a country where many people on fixed incomes still firmly believe in the possibility of getting rich quick. Look at Michael Moore, and you see a man of the people. Look at him lately, and you see a man who got rich quick. As Larissa MacFarquhar points out in her recent New Yorker profile of Moore, this is unlikely to faze his following among the workers, who admire his riches. To some degree, his shelf life as a radical activist and motivator will depend on the balance he can sustain between average Joe and overnight success in presenting himself to young people. To a greater degree, it will depend on his ability to stick to the substance of his beliefs. When all the criticism is said and done, Michael Moore believes in universal health care, employment and education. He believes in gun control. He thinks taxes are a good thing. He believes in equal rights for the usual minorities. He believes businesses should treat their workers decently and share their profits. He believes in an enlightened participatory democracy to get and keep all of the above. He tells people that listening to a Michael Moore rant is not enough beyond laughing, beyond being entertained, they have to get off their asses and get involved, and he gives them tips on how to do it. He may be prickly, but who cares? Hes also right.